“The poem becomes the vessel for mystical experience”: A Conversation with Janaka Stucky

Janaka Stucky is a mystic poet, performer, and founding editor of the award-winning press, Black Ocean. He is the author of The Truth Is We Are Perfect, Your Name Is The Only Freedom, The World Will Deny It For You, and his latest book, Ascend Ascend (Third Man Books, 2019). He has taught and performed in over 60 cities around the world. He is also a two-time National Haiku Champion. More at janakastucky.com.


Kristina Marie Darling:  Third Man Books is an innovative and groundbreaking publishing project.  In fact, it’s affiliated with Third Man Records, the label founded by Jack White.  What drew you to this particular publisher?  

Janaka Stucky: Well to my own press, Black Ocean, was not started as a traditional project. And as a poet I am less interested in craft as I am in experience—whether you call it mystical, ecstatic, or simply transcendent from the mundane world. So as I started thinking about publishers for my work I knew out of the gate that the right match might be difficult to find. When Third Man Records began dipping their toes into the world of books and literature they tapped Chet Weise to be their editor, who in turn tapped me to consult on navigating the brave new world of book publishing—which is very different from record-making. In working with them, and being included as an author in their first box-set anthology, I was really impressed with the attention to detail everyone there had, as well as their enthusiasm for the transformative potential of poetry. As publisher for Black Ocean, I seek content that gives me a sense of dread and awe, that mysterium tremendum, and then I want to package it in the beautiful physical artifact of the well-designed and produced book. While I realized I would be Third Man’s first single-author title, they had demonstrated the kindred dedication to aesthetics I was looking for, and so I decided to pitch my book to them. They picked me up as their first author two weeks later, and here we are.

There have been other, unexpected ways that the pairing has turned out to be a great match. As an artist, performing my work is almost as important to me as writing it. I tour heavily and Third Man knows how to support a touring artist. As a publisher, I often talk with my authors about the various paths of book promotion: touring, reviews & interviews, awards, social media, getting bylines. I think successful book promotion involves a combination of at least 2, and ideally 3, of those avenues. I had over 35 dates in the first year of my book tour behind The Truth Is We Are Perfect in 2015, and I’m on track to exceed that number for Ascend Ascend. A lot of publishers wouldn’t know how to partner with me on a book tour that involved music festivals, multimedia performances, and sharing bills with bands or experimental artists. But to Third Man tour support is their bread & butter for the musicians they work with, and I’m another touring act in their stable. Ben Swank, Third Man’s co-owner has said to me that he wishes some of his musicians hustled as hard as I do—which is a great complement. It’s hard to make that kind of tour schedule work with a family to take care of and a full-time job to navigate, but it has paid off. My first book sold upwards of 2,000 copies and it looks like Ascend Ascend is on-track to do the same. Those are great numbers for poetry, where the average sales for a book is more like 200. So it’s hard work, but I’m also finding my audience.

KMD:  ASCEND, ASCEND reads, in some ways, like an invocation.  Its syntax, cadences, and rhythms are gloriously incantatory.  The book seems almost reminiscent of Selah Saterstrom’s divinatory poetics.  What is the relationship between poetry and the occult for you?

JS:  It’s funny you mention Selah Saterstrom’s work because she was one of the first people I approached about blurbing this book. Unfortunately her schedule didn’t allow for it at the time, but I ended up with blurbs from Anne Waldman, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and Jerome Rothenberg instead—who all feel well-aligned with the incantatory and occult tenor of the book as well.

Allow me to unpack the word “occult” for a moment, because I think it’s worth expanding and clarifying that term in relation not just to my work but to a certain tradition of occult poetics as whole—to which a number of canonical poets belong, such as: HD, Sylvia Plath, James Merrill. The Occult, writ large, refers simply to hidden knowledge—and like any scarce resource, developing access to it can be either revolutionary or can reinforce hierarchies. At its most radical, illuminating and celebrating the occult is a transgressive act which challenges the power of institutions, degrades the psychic oppression of entrenched systems, and provides individuals with direct and unmediated access to an experiential way of being in the immediate now. It is in a sense psychedelic, mystical, and liberating all at once. On the other hand, the promise of that eventual experience through occult knowledge can instead be used as a shackle—which is what we often see in the formation of cults with their patriarchal figureheads, “mystery schools,” certain forms of organized religions, many higher educational programs and their degree programs, and other rigidly hierarchical institutions.

I am of course interested in the former, more radical approach to the occult. My relationship with it involves exploring access to the occult in the form of ecstatic poetry where the poem becomes the vessel for mystical experience—leading beyond semantic values and inducing a suspension of consciousness, which in turn offers an immediate induction for the audience into the same transformational conditions that created it. In other words, I am interested in putting myself into a mystical state, writing from that state, and bringing the audience back into that state through my writing. Though I do incorporate elements of ritual, ceremonial magick, and chaos magick into my creative practice, in my poetry itself radical access to the occult isn’t accomplished by writing “about” the occult itself, which would be a narrative treating the memory of the act. To paraphrase Alan Watts: memory is the corpse of experience. Instead of memory and narrative, I see the poetry of ecstasis as a poetry of the moment—not a signifying poetry but of the experience itself, as it unravels and doubles back on itself.

KMD:  You have embarked on a multi-city tour to promote ASCEND, ASCEND, with readings and performances in Boston, Portland, Providence, Houston, and more.  What were the greatest risks you took during these performances? What were some of your greatest triumphs?

JS: Right, I’ve had fourteen dates so far—with more than twenty five still to go. All of my readings are incantatory in some way. Even when I’m standing behind a podium in a brightly lit bookstore I have developed a practice to tap into the interior current of the work, and recite it from a trance-like state. That in itself always feels a little risky, a little challenging and raw. Beyond the standard readings though I have partnered with Atlas Obscura to perform the new book in its entirety as an immersive, multimedia performance in seven select cities around the country. These events take the form of hour-long ritualized performances, involving candles and incense, various magical objects, an inordinate number of live marigolds, and a full musical score composed and recorded by my friend Adam “Glasseye” Beckley. Each one takes place in an unusual, somewhat sacred location like cemetery, or a mission church, or an old research library. I also perform with other musicians at some of these events. For example in NYC I appeared with the legendary film composer Mark Korven, responsible for the acclaimed score for “The VVitch.” In Seattle this September I’ll be appearing with cellist Lori Goldston, best known for her work with the bands Nirvana and EARTH. At these shows I actually allow myself to be fully possessed by the work—I have out of body experiences, enter fugue states, lose time. It’s a very vulnerable place to be in a room full of strangers. At the same time, the feedback from those strangers has been phenomenal. At each show people come up to me talking about how they in turn started physically vibrating—sometimes breaking out into tears, or laughing. It becomes a very beautiful, collective experience. I suppose that’s a kind of triumph, but I don’t think I am exceptional in my ability to facilitate this experience ... I just think that’s the kind of experience we should demand from performance.

KMD:  Relatedly, I’d love to hear more about the relationship between the book object and the performance.   I find it fascinating that a permanent book artifact is complicated, and enriched, by ephemeral and spontaneous performances.   What does performance make possible in your creative practice? Along these lines, what does performance open up for you when working on the printed page?

JS: Great question! This is something that continues to evolve for me over the years ... To bring it back to what we were first talking about with Third Man, I think there are analogues for me with musicians in this regard. It is one thing to write the work, and it is another thing to record and release the work, and it is yet another thing to perform the work live. All of those are elements of the artistic practice, but each one has a different tenor—a different intention, or function. Listening to your favorite record is a different experience than witnessing it performed live, just as reading an author is a different experience from seeing that author perform their work. Sometimes an artist can ruin their work for us by performing it. That has definitely been my experience seeing a number of authors read! And that’s ok. Even when poetry should be read aloud, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the poet themselves will be good at reading it.

I do enjoy performing. The live energetic feedback loop with the audience provides an experience that writing in solitude does not have. For me, performing is an artistic act in itself, and part of my identity as an artist. At the same time, I am an introvert at heart—who is simply adept at wearing the mask of an extrovert for periods of time. But that is exhausting too. When I’m done with a year of touring, I will probably retreat for a couple of years to recharge, reflect, and begin writing again.

KMD:  What else do you have in the works?  What other publications, readings, events, and performances can we look forward to?

JS:  Well as I mentioned, I still have a number of tour dates left. I will have those immersive Atlas Obscura events in LA, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia this fall. I also have a number of other performances along the west coast, midwest, and east coast through December. People can visit my website for complete tour dates and info, and check back from time to time with updates—or just sign up on my mailing list there.

I’ve been making notes towards a few new books after I’m done touring behind this one. I have a collection of short poems in the works, and I’ve been dabbling with some translations of Jean Genet’s poetry. I don’t know what exactly will manifest next but I’m looking forward to getting back to the page.